Brian Flores had not even filled out his entire coaching staff yet, but he already knew this much:
Linebacker Jerome Baker was not only a keeper, but a player worthy of far more responsibility than he had as a rookie.
Baker recalls visiting Dolphins headquarters one day last spring, not long after Flores had hired some of his assistant coaches. He met with linebackers coach Rob Leonard, defensive coordinator Patrick Graham and finally Flores.
The message was the same, and it was inspiring.
“My last meeting was with coach Flo, and he said the same thing the others did: ‘We’re going to ask a lot out of you and we’re going to put more on you until you can’t go anymore,’” Baker recalled. “’We’re going to give you the green dot [as the defensive play-caller].’”
What else did Flores tell him?
“He’s a man of short words,” Baker said. “He didn’t want to give me too much credit. He said to continue to get better and ultimately, I will have a lot of responsibility and he will put as much as he can on my plate and see if I can handle that. I took it and ran with it.”
Fast forward seven months. Baker is as important as any player on this defense, not only because he replaced Kiko Alonso as the team’s defensive signal-caller, but also because he’s poised to play every down, or most of them, beginning Sunday against visiting Baltimore.
This Dolphins coaching staff views Baker as the ideal fit in a defense that values multiskilled linebackers.
Baker’s ability to cover fleet-footed running backs and tight ends — and his talents as a pass rusher — allow Miami to use him in a variety of ways and keep opposing offenses off balance.
“I can go from covering a back to the next play I’m blitzing,” he said. “You never really know where I’m at, what I’m doing. It’s one less guy the offense really knows what he’s going to do. ‘Oh he’s a d-lineman’ or ‘he might rush’ or ‘he might drop’ or ‘he might cover the back.’ It helps us all.”
He said the new responsibility “is an honor. I don’t take it lightly. I know every day I’ve got to show I belong. It’s not to show the staff, or to show me. I know I can do it. Every day I have to show the players, so Bobby [McCain] knows I’m going to bring it. So X [Xavien Howard] believes in me. So [Davon] Godchaux knows. It’s earning the respect of my teammates.”
Because he’s working in multiple roles, Baker is extracting insight from a half dozen coaches on the staff.
“What’s unique about this staff is they all have their own input,” he said. “I actually went over and worked with [cornerbacks coach] Josh Boyer. I go over with TO [safeties coach Tony Oden] and work with the safeties. Sometimes I’ll work with outside backers. [Defensive line] coach [Marion] Hobby coached me [recently] on pass rush. They all give their input and I take it. It’s a blessing.”
Baker, selected in the third round of the 2018 draft, diligently studies the playbook, even reciting plays while playing the Madden video game with his 26-year-old cousin.
“I live with my cousin and we play Madden and I end up teaching him, ‘this is what the drop is... this is where I’m trying to hit.’
“Next thing I know, he’s just sitting there not having a clue listening to me just teach our defense. My cousin is like ‘bro, you’re just studying.’”
Baker, whose intelligence is valued by the staff as much as his athletic gifts, studies film of players at numerous positions, not merely linebackers.
“I try to take little bits and pieces from everyone,” he said. “I take stuff from AB [receiver Antonio Brown]; [quarterback] Cam Newton, who brings that juice every day. Tom Brady’s consistency.”
As far as individual skill development, he watches three linebackers in particular: injured Steelers player Ryan Shazier, Carolina’s Luke Kuechly and Seattle’s Bobby Wagner.
“Ryan Shazier posted his routine, and I’m going to take that and adjust it to how I do it,” Baker said. “Luke Kuechly knows most of the plays before they actually ran them. The way Bobby Wagner gets off blocks, accelerating to the ball; I watch Bobby a lot.”
Flores sees a multi-dimensional role, one that had Baker studying tape of Kyle Van Noy and other Patriots linebackers all offseason.
“This is a talented guy,” Flores said. “He can win a one-on-one pass rush. At the linebacker position, we’re going to ask him to do a few things. We’re going to ask him to rush. We’re going to ask him to cover. We’re going to ask him to tackle, play in the run game.”
Baker recalls NFL draft analyst Jon Ledyard saying this about him before the 2018 draft: “Jerome Baker, athlete, not football player.”
Baker’s response now?
“Ha, ha, he said you couldn’t do it. It’s proven I can play every down.”
He’ll get his chance starting Sunday.
Please check out my earlier Thursday piece, as ESPN’s Louis Riddick explains how Miami went overboard in dismantling the roster and set up Josh Rosen to fail.